Laurie Taylor has an appetite for the incomprehensible
Woody Allen once boasted that he'd done a speedreading course. "It was wonderful", he claimed. "I read War and Peace in half an hour. It's about Russia." I think of that gag when I'm face to face with yet another pile of books that I need to master for my weekly radio programme. Friends at the BBC tell me I'm far too conscientious. They can give me the names of two extremely well known presenters who simply turn up on the day and accept a list of readymade questions compiled by the producer.
But it has absolutely nothing to do with conscientiousness. It's a straightforward terror of being found out which dates back to 1983, when my Head of Department at York asked me to give a seminar the very next day on the work of Ferdinand Tönnies and his concepts of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. He waved away my protestations of total ignorance. Any sociologist worth his modest pay cheque would surely know enough about Tönnies to get through an hour with a bunch of knownothing first years.
I got through the first ten minutes by taking the register, apologising for the absence of their regular lecturer, and asking about the work they'd done the previous week. Then, it was down to business. "Ferdinand Tönnies," I began, "Was a very significant sociologist. His twin concepts of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft are familiar to all those who seek to find ways of distinguishing between societies characterised either by the concept of mutual aid or the concept of selfinterest. Let's write them up on the board, shall we?"
"Now, can anyone see what's wrong? Well, you see the problem is the assumption that these two types of society are dichotomous. Any particular society is either an example of Gemeinschaft or Gesellschaft." I was off and running. "But what Tönnies ignores is the possibility that some societies may contain elements of both types. So, instead of placing these concepts in neat discrete boxes, a more correct formulation would be to place them on a line, on a continuum."
And then came the moment that would determine my reading habits for the next twenty years. A stolid looking student called Norman (what else) raised his hand. "But I've just been reading the introduction to Tönnies' book," he said with an appalling assurance, "and he says quite definitely that these concepts shouldn't be treated as dichotomies. I'll read it out for you." He then read out an entire paragraph in which Tönnies, with admirable lucidity, pointed out the dangers of not regarding his concepts as lying on a continuum. "Ah good," I said. "Now, I really know you're all awake." Norman shook his head sadly.
So these days I read all the damned books I'm sent, even though I'm periodically seized by the idea that there must be some method other than speedreading that would allow me to get their contents into my head more quickly than turning over page after page after page. As I sit for hours hacking my way through dense thickets of prose I have this recurrent idea of slinging all the books in front of me into a large saucepan of boiling water. I'd keep the pan bubbling until they turned into a distilled mush. Then I'd syringe the lot up and inject it straight into the large vein on the side of my head.
Think of the possibilities. Instead of sitting around imagining how good it would be to have read all the books reviewed in this New Humanist, you'd simply order them from Amazon today, boil them all up on Saturday afternoon, and have every one of them at your command after you'd jacked up on Sunday morning. But there's more. Cortical injection of books, or librosuction as I'm thinking of calling it, means that you can now master the most difficult texts. When books are injected straight into the cortex they bypass the incomprehensibility censor. Now, all of a sudden you'll be able to master Heidegger and Lacan and Derrida in the time that it normally takes to steam a mediumsized sponge pudding.
My only concern is that too many people will get their hands on the technique. It's all very well finding a way in which busy professional people can dramatically improve their reading skills, but surely not even the most populist amongst us would welcome the day when unemployed innercity youth were buying wraps of Kierkegaard on the street corners of our major cities. Ecstasy is one thing. Sickness Unto Death really is quite another.